Homelessness in Phoenix is an unprecedented disaster.
The number of homeless people living on the streets has tripled since 2016, even as the number in shelters has fallen. In 2020, more than 500 homeless people died on the streets. This year, the number of homeless deaths in the city is expected to exceed 1,000. Most of these deaths are due to drug overdoses.
Despite this human tragedy, many elected leaders in Phoenix want to continue on our current, failed path. Their only “solution” is to give free permanent housing to everyone who sleeps outside. And while we wait years or decades for those thousands of homes to be built, they want to continue to allow our most vulnerable neighbors, who struggle with addiction and serious mental illness, to live and die on our streets.
Phoenix has to take a different path, and he has to do it now. Waiting just one more year will multiply the harm done to homeless people and our communities. We have no choice but to change course now with a focus on humane application, rapid shelter and necessary treatment.
Step 1: Enforce laws against street camping
First, the state must ensure that Phoenix enforces its existing laws against sleeping and camping on the streets. In Texas, Missouri and elsewhere, state legislatures have passed bipartisan laws requiring cities to take action. While proponents of failing the status quo say it “criminalizes” homelessness, cities that enforce these laws see fewer homeless deaths and few or no actual arrests.
Local opponents also claim that the execution is impossible because a federal court decision, City of Boise v. Martin, obliges cities to offer beds to anyone removed from public space. But it’s easy and affordable for Phoenix to provide needed space for homeless people.
Another view:Phoenix ignores rampant crime in drug-riddled ‘zone’
Several cities, from Austin, Texas, to Oakland, California, created “authorized encampments” in just a few weeks. These areas where homeless people pitch their tents can provide services, shelter, sanitation and, most importantly, security. Closer monitoring and ties to nonprofit organizations prevent those living on the streets from putting themselves and others at risk.
Step 2: Provide more short-term housing
Second, Phoenix and the state must shift their focus from free or subsidized permanent housing, known as the “Housing First” philosophy, to creating the necessary housing space.
Arizona has already created 7,000 new permanent homes for the homeless since 2010, but that obviously hasn’t solved our problems. During the same period, we have taken thousands of short-term beds and shelters out of service.
The city should create more short-term beds and shelters, including through small house communities, which can be built much cheaper and faster than permanent housing.
Step 3: Treat mental health and addiction first
Third, the state and city should refocus on a “treatment first” philosophy. While the failed “housing first” model does not require treatment for addictions or mental health issues, programs like restorative housing tie housing to sobriety or mental health screenings.
This approach helps people get off the streets. This helps them clean themselves and prepare for a new life. The city and state should ensure that public funds go to nonprofit organizations that successfully address the root causes of homelessness related to mental health and addiction.
Those who argue that Phoenix should continue with its current homelessness strategy are out of touch. I challenge anyone who disagrees to walk with me in my neighborhood.
Local failures created this deadly disaster, and we need to change direction now before we face even more death and misery on our streets.
Even if the city government fails to act, I promise to work on comprehensive solutions to this humanitarian crisis with anyone – regardless of political party – in the Arizona Legislature.
Catherine Miranda, a Democrat, was recently elected to serve District 11, which includes central and southern Phoenix, in the state Senate. On Twitter: @CatherineSenate.
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